“Jazz for me is like oxygen” – an interview with Sam Nhlengethwa

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Sam Nhlengethwa has been making paintings and collages since the 1970s. Born in 1955 in Payneville, a mining town east of Johannesburg, the artist studied at the Mofolo Art Center in Soweto, then at the Johannesburg Art Foundation with its founder Bill Ainslie; Along with painters David Koloane and Kagiso Patrick Mautloa, Nhlengethwa was co-founder of Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in 1991, which provided space and resources for black artists in the city. Since his teens, Nhlengethwa has also been obsessed with jazz music, frequently incorporating images of performers and record covers in his paintings, textiles and collages. On the occasion of his last exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in London, Nhlengethwa spoke to Apollo about his unwavering passion for the world of jazz.

Many visual artists cite jazz as inspiration, you seem particularly devoted to jazz and its personalities – as they appear on record covers, posters and on stage. What does this music mean to you?
Jazz for me is like oxygen. It completes my life. I grew up listening to jazz music played to me by my two older brothers; from the age of 15, there was jazz in the house. It became a part of me – as I was going through high school, then I decided to go to art school, and I found jazz to be my tool. I find it very embarrassing and strange if I paint in my studio without listening to it.

The show in London is my biggest on the jazz theme, and I consider the way I worked to create these pieces as kind of a collaboration. Without all the composers, the actors themselves, the photographers who provided all of the wonderful images from the archives, the collages I make wouldn’t exist.

Ode to jazz hubs (2021), Sam Nhlengethwa. Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery

The exhibit includes collages of record covers, concert posters and performance images, but there is also an installation that is a replica of your living room, complete with an LP player. Is jazz a private passion or does it also have a public function?
I’d say it’s public – but, selfishly, I’m making it private. This installation in the show reflects me in my free time, when I’m not working, sitting on a comfortable sofa and calmly listening to jazz.

But jazz is also public, of course. When I do works of art inspired by European or American musicians like Miles Davis or Ron Carter, it’s a little different than doing painting or collage with inspiration from [the South African musicians] Todd Matshikiza, Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela – because I know their fight. Some of them had to leave the country for political reasons – it all gets a bit touching when I approach jazz from South Africa.

Installation view of 'Sam Nhlengethwa: Jazz and Blues at Night' at the Goodman Gallery, London, 2021.

Installation view of ‘Sam Nhlengethwa: Jazz and Blues at Night’ at the Goodman Gallery, London, 2021.

You spoke previously of jazz as being above all an art of “interpretation” – the same could be said of your paintings and collages. How are visual arts and jazz music connected, for you?
Jazz and the visual arts are like the head and tail of a coin. There are musicians who also practice artists – Miles Davis was one; Joni Mitchell was also a great painter. In this spirit, the collages that I make with jazz covers are a way of paying tribute to the artists who made them, but also to the musicians who chose these images for the cover of their album, who were inspired by them. So there is a very strong relationship between visual art and jazz. Especially here at home in South Africa – photographers, musicians and artists are so close to each other, all under one umbrella.

Miriam Makeba (2021), Sam Nhlengethwa.  Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery

Myriam Makeba (2021), Sam Nhlengethwa. Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery

Jazz aficionados and art lovers alike also share a certain urge to create collections – part of the vast record collection you’ve amassed over the years is on display at Goodman …
Yes, it was not that easy! When I started collecting, I lived with my parents. Every once in a while, when I went to a record store to buy something, when I came home I had to hide it, because for my mother it didn’t make sense for me to go and feed my passion – I could have contributed or donated this money to my family. So it was very difficult. But like I said, jazz has been a part of me for so many years.

I had in my bag – I still have some – an A5 sketchbook, and I would go to jazz clubs, sit in a corner and draw the performers. We often went to [the jazz club] Kippies on a Friday night. Once, on a Saturday night, in front of a restaurant near my studio, there were guys walking in the streets. I opened my bag, realized I didn’t have my sketchbook, so on the back of an envelope I made a sketch – I still have this sketch. When I pulled out my sketchbooks [for the exhibition], I realized that I had done and seen so many, sketched so many musicians, over the years.

Sextet (2021), Sam Nhlengethwa. Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery

What’s the biggest concert you’ve attended?
It was about three or four years ago, in the south of France, at a place called Saint-Émilion where I was a passing artist. I saw Charles Lloyd – he was playing with kids, but it was such a beautiful show. Two or three days later there was a gig there – Kyle Eastwood, playing with Jean-Luc Ponty. I saw Richard Bona, I saw Stacey Kent… I have been blessed all these years to see the best musicians. In Cape Town, I saw Hubert Laws, Ron Carter, Nina Simone… yeah, I saw a lot!

Art Blakely (2021), Sam Nhlengethwa.  Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery

Blakely Art (2021), Sam Nhlengethwa. Courtesy of the Goodman Gallery

‘Sam Nhlengethwa: Jazz and Blues at Night’ is at the Goodman Gallery, London, until September 25.


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